The Complete African Safari Guide
One of the greatest travel experiences is to go on a safari in Africa (‘safari’ is a Swahili word from East Africa that means ‘journey’ or ‘travel’). Going on safari feels like wandering onto the set of a National Geographic documentary – the sight of acacia trees, magnificent sunrises and sunsets, and herds of roaming animals is an experience that will stay in your memory for a very, very long time.
I have enjoyed numerous safaris in Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia and Namibia – and these experiences allow me to share the following important information about going on a safari in Africa.
Adhere to all instructions by your safari guides and hosts whether you are in the camp or on a game drive – their primary concern is your safety, and they have the experience to support it. If they tell you to not wander around your safari camp on your own – don’t do it. Never, ever leave a vehicle during a game drive unless permitted by your safari guide or driver. In most cases, if a wild animal is near and you are on the ground – don’t move. Elephants will pass you if you are motionlessness and if you run, predators automatically assume you are prey, even if you don’t smell like one. If you need to move away and you are in sight of an animal, do it slowly
Many people believe that the most dangerous animals are predators (such as lions, leopards and cheetahs) – this is incorrect – they much prefer to munch on a juicy zebra, wildebeest or an antelope. The most dangerous animals in Africa are the hippo and the elephant – they easily account for more deaths than predators (predators usually attack livestock instead of people). Though they are vegetarians, they will violently defend their territory. For hippos, it is the water they are soaking in or the area around them if heading to land to graze at night, and for elephants, it is wherever they happen to be. Most dangerous of them all is the lone male elephant who has been driven away from their herd (the adults in a herd are only female) as they can become very aggressive. The only time an animal on a safari has ever threatened me was when a lone male elephant charged our vehicle.
Where to Go on a Safari
There are two mains regions for safaris in Africa. East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda) and Southern Africa (South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, Malawi, Botswana and Namibia). There is a definite difference between the two. The largest animals are found in East Africa – the elephants are bigger, and the lions are bigger, to name just two. My educated guess for this is that poaching was endemic in Southern Africa and it wiped out the largest of most species – whereas this did not occur on such a scale in East Africa. However, safari costs in East Africa tend to be more expensive than those in Southern Africa.
Some places are more famed for its wildlife than others. Chobe National Park in Botswana is famed for elephants, and so is to Samburu National Reserve in Kenya, South Luangwa in Zambia is known for its leopards, but the grandest of them all is the Maasai Mara/Serengeti ecosystem that straddles Tanzania and Kenya. Every year 2 million animals (mostly wildebeest but also zebra and different antelopes) migrate between the northern and southern parts of this ecosystem, in what is termed ‘The Great Migration’. For a safari experience, nothing comes close to the spectacle of The Great Migration.
My favourite places for an African safari:
Animal Viewing – Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya during The Great Migration (July-October) nothing else comes close to this spectacle of 2 million animals searching for literally greener pastures. I saw more animals in the first half-hour of a game drive during The Great Migration than all my previous days of game drives combined.
Natural Beauty – Ngorongoro Conservation Area in Tanzania. To be within this crater at any time of day is incredible for you are entirely encircled by a steep, high escarpment. If you arrive at dawn, you could experience the breathtaking sight of driving through the fog and suddenly breaking through the cloud to see the crater spread out below you.
Best Value for Money – South Luangwa National Park in Zambia. There are many camps on the border of the park that are very reasonably priced. Given this and the high density of wildlife for such a small area, it is an excellent choice for any person seeking a solid safari experience.
When to Go on a Safari
The time of your travel is critical to enjoying the safari experience. There are many variations to this in different parts of Africa, so it is worthy of providing a general overview of this topic.
Peak Season is when the animals are at their most plentiful or they are most visible. For example, they are most plentiful on the Maasai Mara National Reserve during the July-October period when 2 million animals migrate from the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. Conversely, the Serengeti is better in the December-June period because the migrating animals are all in that area. In places where waterholes provide the best viewing, the dry season is better. Thus in Etosha National Park in Namibia, the dry season is May-October, and it offers the best viewing experiences.
The Green Season is the time when rains bring plenty of green. It is usually the cheapest time to visit a place. Sounds lovely, but there are some things to consider. The more it rains, the more foliage appears and the harder it is to see animals. Due to the extra water, animals that usually gather around waterholes can find water elsewhere, thus making it even harder to find the animals. Remember, that in some places where the green season occurs (such as Kenya) parks will close to visitors because the dirt roads become impassable. If you are looking for natural beauty, the green season is an excellent time to go on safari, but if you are looking for wildlife, you may want to choose another time.
Shoulder Season occurs between the two listed above, and it is a bit of a lottery. Sometimes the animals will stay longer if they find more food in the area, but this varies greatly year by year. For example, in the Maasai Mara November is the shoulder season. Still, if there have been more rains in Kenya during the proceeding few months, there will be more grass to graze on, and the animals on The Great Migration will linger for long past their normal departure date of October. This happened in 2016, and those who came to the area in early November viewed significantly more animals than they would have seen had they visited in other years.
The standard of accommodation can be very high, and the price reflects this quality. There are two types of accommodation. The first type is the lodge-style – this can be a similar style to a hotel or different self-contained chalets. The second type is preferred by many, and it is the luxury tented option. These are larger (if not larger) than most hotel rooms you have stayed in). They can even have Wifi, and I once stayed in a luxury tent with a chandelier – look at the photograph below to see what a tented camp can look like. All resorts have a common open-air area where meals are usually served – and this tends to be one of the most beautiful parts of any accommodation.
Note that almost all safari accommodation is full board (meaning they provide all food – 3 meals a day) though drinks can cost extra. Some places do allow you to self-cater as they provide access to a kitchen, but these places target the budget traveller.
Finally, many places (especially tented camps) have a minimum age restriction. Check with them before you book. These tents are in the open and wild animals can and do roam close to them. It is why if you are informed by staff to not venture outside of your tent at night without a security escort, heed this advice.
Where to Stay on a Safari
There are three different areas to stay when on safari. The first is to stay within the park. This puts you in the middle of the action and allows quick access to and from the wildlife viewing. Given the size of some of the larger parks (such as the Serengeti in Tanzania), this is the only option to consider as you would otherwise be too far away from places where the animals gather.
The second is to stay within a conservancy adjacent to major parks. The advantage of staying in conservancies attached to major parks is that they attract far less vehicular traffic. They charge an additional fee to enter, thus deterring many from coming in. During peak season some parks can become a traffic jam, whereas the adjacent conservancy has just as many animals but with only a handful of vehicles. I remember once on the Maasai Mara seeing a family of 3 cheetahs relaxing under the shade of a tree – and there were literally dozens of vehicles battling for the best position. However, only an hour earlier in a conservancy, our vehicle came across a lion feasting on a dead wildebeest, and there were only 2 vehicles (including ours) to view this event.
The third option is to stay outside the park. You do not need to stay in a park (and thus pay park fees) if you stay very close by – plus you can still enjoy animal viewing. We once stayed near to South Luangwa Park in Zambia – the park was located on the other side of the river. Because animals don’t recognise park boundaries, from the comfort of the camp we saw a leopard wander on the river bank, had a constant view of hippos, and elephants would often wander through the campsite at different times of the day.Read more: Saving Money for Travel
Of all the sections on this page, this is one of the most important. Game drives are at the heart of a safari experience – and the more time you are in a vehicle searching for animals, the better. The best times for viewing are the 30 minutes before sunrise and 60 minutes after sunrise, as well as 60 minutes before sunset and 30 minutes after sunset. However, animals can be found at any time of the day.
Look for camps that provide the most game drive time. Be aware that a number will only allow for 2 hours both at sunrise and sunset. These may be cheaper to stay at, but it is a false economy. For example, let’s say you have found a camp that costs you 400 US dollars per night, and they provide you with 4 hours of game drives per day (2 hours sunrise, 2 hours sunset), but there is another camp that charges 600 US dollars per night, and they provide you with 8 hours per day (2 hours sunrise, 6 hours afternoon and sunset). Now consider the different rates per hour for your game drives. In the first, your 400 US dollars for 4 hours of game drives equates to 100 US dollars per hour. But for the second, your 600 USD dollars for 8 hours of games drives equates 75 US dollars per hour – this is far better value. I will guarantee that if you are on game drives for less than 6 hours per day, you will feel you are missing something.
One final piece of advice, it is far better to go on a game drive first and eat breakfast after you have finished your drive. Request if this is possible – and if it isn’t, find a camp that allows you to do this. That period for half an hour, either side of sunrise is when animals are most active. For example, I stayed at a camp in Tsavo West in Kenya. We were told there would be a 06:00 departure (30 minutes before sunrise) for those who wanted it – and I was the only person who did. There were wonderful variety and volume of animals to see – it was really special. Upon returning to the camp, I met other travellers who decided to take the later 06:30 departure, and they told me ‘We didn’t see much at all’. That half-hour was the difference between seeing a lot or only a few animals.
Note that there is a particular type of game drive called a Sundowner – this is when you head to a viewing point to watch a sunset with a drink of wine and some food. For those who want the African sunset experience, this is a fantastic way to end your day. However, if you love photography, you will find the sundowners to be frustrating. While the animals are more active elsewhere, you are stuck on a hill waiting for a sunset.
Some areas allow you to go on a Night Safari – this is when many animals (such as predators) are most active. The vehicle carries at least one very powerful light that illuminates a wide area. The only time I’ve seen an active lion hunt was during a night safari, as lions mostly rest during the day. Remember to dress warmly for a night safari as it can get cold, especially with the wind blowing into the vehicle when you are moving.
Remember that on all game drives to keep talking to a minimum. The loudest noise from a vehicle should be the engine and not your voice. It’s not unusual to be driving for 20-30 minutes without people saying anything except ‘beautiful’ and similar words about the landscape. When close to an animal, silence is essential. If you wish to talk about what you have seen – wait until after you drive away from the animals. Also, turn your phone to silent (not vibrate) or turn it off while on a game drive.
The Disadvantages of Self-Driving on a Game Drive
I love driving myself around – and much prefer it to have someone drive me due to the freedom it allows. However, the exception to this rule is on a game drive in Africa – and it is far better to be driven by a local person with knowledge of the area. There are a few reasons for this:
Local drivers have a network to find the best animal sightings – Local drivers within a National Park have a network. You will regularly see drivers talking to other drivers as they pass each other (even if they are from competing accommodation places), and drivers from the same accommodation will keep in contact with each other by two-way radios. In every one of these conversations, drivers will share information as to where animals are being found. You miss out on this network of information if you drive yourself.
Experienced drivers have the knowledge to keep you safe – Can you recognise the signs of when a bull elephant is about to charge a vehicle? Unless you can answer this question quickly and confidently, you are taking an unnecessary risk if you drive yourself. You are entering an environment surrounded by wild animals and local drivers observe animal behaviour on a daily basis, and it is this knowledge that they use to keep you safe.
Local drivers have a support network – What happens if your vehicle breaks down in a National Park? Who is going to help you? If you are using a local driver, they will always source someone to assist – especially with their two-way radios. If you are an outsider, you will need to help yourself in the short term – and with wild animals loitering nearby, you will value someone with experience being nearby.
If you do decide to drive yourself, ensure that you have the correct type of vehicle and the correct colour of vehicle. For example, in Mara North Conservancy in Kenya, only off-road vehicles are allowed, and they must be green, beige or earth in colour.
Other Activities while on a Safari
If you have the opportunity to visit a local village – then do so. Some camps make a real effort to increase your understanding of the different tribes that have lived on this land for hundreds and thousands of years.
There are other ways to get around a park than being in a vehicle. Horse and camel safaris are available in certain areas, and though you see a lot less, the experience is incredible. I’ll always remember riding a horse toward a herd of zebra and could hear my horse and zebras communicating with each other as we got closer – truly remarkable. The photograph of the giraffe below was taken while sitting on a horse during a horse safari.
Walking safaris are also available in certain parks, but these only occur where there are no predators and no elephants. You will always have a guard with you, so safety is not an issue. This gives you a chance to look closely at trees, plants, animal tracks, and resting places for certain creatures as well. This is truly a fascinating way to see an area, and it allows guides to talk in-depth about what you are viewing.
Type of Vehicles for Game Drives
This is something many people overlook when on safari, but it is critical to your enjoyment. The two key aspects of having the right vehicle are comfort and viewing. The best way to determine which vehicle will be used is to visit the website of the safari camp or ask your tour operator directly.
Minivan – if you find a very cheap safari operator, it is likely they will use these vehicles. They don’t handle the bumps of dirt roads as well as the other vehicles listed, their smaller windows hinder visibility, and if you happen to find yourself in the middle seat, you won’t be able to see much at all. They are not recommended due to lack of comfort and lack of visibility.
Standard off-road vehicle (such as the Toyota Land Cruiser) – they may be comfortable and suitable great for most outdoor activities. Still, due to the limited windows, these hinder your ability to command a full 360-degree view of the area. Yes, some do have pop-up tops where you can look through the top, but standing while bumping along a road is not comfortable. These are acceptable if your vehicle is not full, but there are much better options.
Modified off-road vehicle – these sit higher and have a longer wheelbase than a standard off-road vehicle. This allows you to see more of the landscape, plus these vehicles handle the bumps much better than standard off-road vehicles. The only issue with these vehicles is that the bars that hold the window frames (that usually have glass) do obstruct your view in some areas. For seating arrangements, many of these vehicles have seats only on the windows (with no middle seat except the last row) thus everyone has an excellent view.
Modified windowless off-road vehicle – these are very similar to the previous vehicle but have no window frames at all and thus provide the best visibility (a photo of one is below). However, these vehicles are harder to find – but if you do find them, you are guaranteed the best experience in terms of comfort and viewing. The only negative is that if the weather gets cold, you cannot close windows. Ensure you bring warm clothes with you just in case.
Note that safari camps or tour operators that use modified vehicles will charge you more, but is definitely worth the extra expense. I will only stay at safari camps that use modified vehicles on game drives.
What to Bring on a Safari
Bring neutral and pastel-coloured clothes – avoid wearing anything bright. Safari locations can get cold at night, so bring a light pair of thermals and/or a jacket. Bring sunscreen, a hat and avoid too many short clothes (skirts, pants, shorts). Longer clothes protect you against the sun and from potentially malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Avoid bringing any strong smelling perfume or deodorant. Bright colours and strong deodorant can deter some animals. If you want to make the most of the photographic opportunities, bring a DSLR or Mirrorless camera with a longer (at least 200mm) zoom lens. You are strongly recommended to bring extra batteries and memory cards – it is incredible how many photos one can take on a day!
Remember that if you need to fly a smaller plane to reach your safari destination, there is a strict 15kg limit (including hand luggage) per person. You may be allowed to bring more weight with you, but it is not guaranteed. Soft bags are preferred by domestic airlines, and luggage with wheels does not work well in any safari destination – consider an alternative. If you do have more, you are best to store the excess luggage in the city you are departing from and collect it on your return.Read more: How to Take the Best Travel Photos
Safaris With Children
If you want to bring your children on a safari, your choices will be more limited due to two reasons. First, some camps have a minimum age restriction, and this seems to be based on the safety aspect of children who could wander off on their own when a camp is surrounded by potentially dangerous wild animals and/or to maintain that exclusive adult feel of a camp. The second barrier is that even if a camp does allow children, some will have a policy that children under a certain age must have a dedicated vehicle for game drives. For example, mum, dad and the 2 children have their own vehicle. This sounds ideal because you have a vehicle to yourself, but this can be considered a ‘private’ or ‘exclusive’ use of a vehicle, thus meaning you will pay a surcharge of several hundred dollars a day. The reason for this policy is that children can be noisy, and one of the critical rules of game drives (as stated above) is that noise must be kept to a minimum. Check with the campsite or tour operator if these restrictions and rules will apply.
Remember that safari accommodation is geared to adults wanting an escape from the pressures of modern, city living. Because of this there will be no televisions in your rooms, no phones in your rooms, and you may not have Wifi in your rooms – and even if Wifi is available, it may be of poor quality. Thus your electronic entertainment options for children may be very limited or non-existent. Some eco-friendly camps pride themselves on causing minimal impact to the environment and because of this – your ability to recharge your electronic items may be restricted to your camera batteries and a phone. It may not be possible to charge other items. Because of this, either choose a safari where you can spend as much time outside of your camp as possible or choose a camp that has access to animal viewing from its property (such as overlooking a waterhole). Still, the first option is the preferable one.
Of all the different travel experiences to spend your money on, going on a safari is the one time you should spend the extra money because you get what you pay for. It is not uncommon for a safari on the Maasai Mara during The Great Migration to cost 800 US dollars per night per person (including park fees and full board). However, I have seen prices that exceed this by a significant amount.
It is important to ask whether park fees are included in any costs when you are booking either your accommodation or your tour. These can range in price, such as 25 US dollars per day in South Luangwa in Zambia to 80 US dollars per 24 hours in the Maasai Mara in Kenya. Some operators will exclude these charges to advertise a lower price, but a group of 4 adults staying for 3 nights at the Maasi Mara will suddenly find themselves hit with an extra 960 US dollars of charges for park fees.
Remember that even though park fees are charged within the park, if you are staying just outside the border of the park, you can stay there for a night or two and only pay park fee if you physically enter the park. We did this in South Luangwa, where we stayed just outside the border (separated by a river) and alternated days going into the park during our week stay.